Marie Chouinard brings Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights to life in all its surreal, macabre glory

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Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights | Compagnie Marie Chouinard | DanceHouse | Vancouver Playhouse | March 15-16, 2019

If there’s any dance company in the world that Hieronymus Bosch’s 500-year-old painting was made for, it’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard. Chouinard’s trademark nude forms have earned her a reputation as a bold choreographer whose works range from idyllic to sinister.

Commissioned by the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation in 2016, the work commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Dutch painter’s death. Directly inspired by the forms and images in the iconic three-panel painting, Chouinard brings it to life in three acts corresponding to the panels.  

The central panel depicted in Act 1, The Garden of Delights, is the most vibrant and surreal. With the panel projected behind the dancers, and small sections projected on circular screens at each side of the stage, we’re able to see the direct correlation between the painting and the choreography. While it was fun to try to spot the figure in the painting that the dancers were mimicking, it was also distracting.

The inventive ways that the action in the painting is depicted include the dancers riding on each other’s shoulders to represent people riding various animals in the central section of the panel. To end the act, the dancers crawl inside a large, clear inflatable bubble that serves to represent an egg that people are crawling into in the painting. They dance joyfully in synch inside the bubble, seemingly leaving the rapacious landscape of the Garden of Delights.  

In Act 2, Hell, the right panel is enacted in a chaotic cacophony of jarring movement and sound. The dancers cavort around with ugly props, screeching and squealing in terror. This time, the panel is not projected in its entirety, but the circular screens show small portions, scanning over the various macabre images it contains such as various creatures eating people, skeletons, and acts of violence. This act was less of a direct representation of the painting and more of an interpretation of the tone and general unsettling feeling it provokes. And the choreography was certainly unsettling.

The final act, Paradise, representing the left panel was the calmest. Two blinking eyes, projected on the circular screens, watched over the action during the entire act as a God figure introduces Adam and Eve. Many dancers join them, taking their poses to copy either Adam or Eve until there are many of each scattered around. From there, the movement evolves until they are all frolicking in peaceful harmony.     

Just as the painting is full of a vast array of detail that would take many looks to absorb, this is a show that would benefit from multiple viewings — each one would provide new perspectives into Bosch’s work. From directly mimicking the figures in the painting to presenting a visceral interpretation of its content, Chouinard has created a new interpretation of this masterpiece that is both an homage and an inspired new work taking on a life of its own.

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